Your Client as Your New Partner

Updated September 20, 2022

Update – Back in 2010, I posted about law firm clients’ growing demand for self-service.  Although the will was there, the technology still wasn’t quite ready for prime time.  That’s changed, but client demand for self-service hasn’t.  And TLDR, it’s not an economic thing, but a sea change in attitude.

 Starting in 2010, we began the slow trend towards making clients’ more active participants in legal matters. As always, Law 21‘s Jordan Furlong says it best in this seminal post, Ready or Not, Here Come the Clients:

So it really matters now what clients want: personalized help and guidance to arrange their legal affairs and to anticipate and minimize their legal troubles, from a trustworthy advisor who communicates frequently and is truly concerned with their best interests, delivered as quickly as possible at an affordable, predictable price.

 To be sure, economic considerations may have catalyzed the change in the attorney-client relationship.  But there’s a more fundamental driver:  the rise of the do-it-yourself consumer.

Consider the broader social trends:

Grocery stores nearly universally offer self-checkout;

Consumers can procure prescriptions online; Consumers are seeking information on health care options online, with 60 percent acknowledging that online information changed their treatment decisions.

Even if the economy bounces back, the DIY mentality that’s been unleashed by technology won’t go away.  Over the next decade, clients will be asking more questions about options that they’ve read about on the Internet.  Researching case law on Google and demanding lawyers make arguments based on precedent that they’ve discovered.  Investigating potential opponents on social media (and not always lawfully).  In many ways, client service will become an oxymoron.  Because clients are not looking for service, at least as we lawyers have understood the term.  Instead, clients want a partner – someone who brings expertise, who can explain issues and in short, can help them to help themselves.

A partnership between lawyers and clients can be rewarding.  Many of my clients are sophisticated engineers or scientists and I’ve won many a victory based on theories that they developed before they brought me on board.

On the other hand, changing the attorney-client balance of power poses new challenges.  For example, letting clients call the shots can impair lawyers’ judgment and lead to ethics breaches.  Young lawyers may feel less comfortable pulling rank on an informed client, while older lawyers, accustomed to ignoring what clients have to say, may overlook rich sources of information.  And all lawyers may quickly grow impatient with explaining the same topics to clients over and over [No, that Sixth Circuit federal case you found on Google doesn’t make much difference in Superior Court in New Jersey; No, I don’t care if your cousin did it, it’s not OK to fake friend the plaintiff to try to access incriminating photos, etc…]

There’s a philosophical component involved as well:  we lawyers need to reflect on what functions are “core” to our role as counselors.  Just because clients demand a simple form or that we take a particular strategy doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate.  At what point do we as lawyers surrender so much power to clients that we cease to function as an advisor?  Or what of a situation where we sign a retainer agreement for unbundled services to draft a lease for a landlord who’s expressed intent to violate fair housing laws?  Do we have an obligation to advise on that – or do we say that it’s outside the scope of the retainer?  Indeed, in an age of lawyer-client parity, does our current ethics code make sense?  Interesting questions all, but beyond the scope of this post.

As I first posted here in 2010, DIY clients are here to stay.  It’s not an economic phenomenon, it’s a sea change. And as I wrote here self-service is one of the best ways that lawyers can serve clients.  Those lawyers who fail to recognize and offer the kinds of service that clients want will lose them to lawyers who do.